BoJack Horseman season 5 tests the limits of meta commentary

BoJack Horseman season 5 buries its best jokes and most interesting ideas in self-reference.

This post contains very minor spoilers for season 5 of BoJack Horseman.

BoJack Horseman, along with being the hands-down best animated meditation on depression, addiction and loneliness, is perhaps the funniest Hollywood satire, ever. Given that it is also a cartoon about a sad, self-destructive anthropomorphic horse, much of its humor over the past four seasons has come with a healthy helping of self-awareness. The fifth season, out Friday, Sept. 14 on Netflix, continues to find humor in self-reference and TV send-ups, but with noticeably greater ambitions for its social satire, it’s unrelenting meta commentary concludes in a mostly unsatisfying fashion. But maybe that’s the point.

The show picks up with BoJack (Will Arnett) starting production on a new gritty True-Detective-esque drama, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) beginning the adoption process, Diane (Alison Brie) and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) moving on after their divorce and Todd (Aaron Paul) on the verge of new Todd hijinks. (“Ugh, Todd, your good-hearted naivete has once again conspired with outrageous happenstance to completely dick me over,” BoJack bemoans in episode 1.) The season’s not as tight, narratively, as past seasons, nor is it as consistently funny or quite as moving emotionally, though it’s easy to get swept up in an especially strong middle run. (Are we going with “the eulogy episode” or “the funeral episode”? Either way, you’ll recognize it as the spiritual successor to the underwater episode when you see it.)

Self-reference and industry satire are still very much among the show’s strengths. The Post-It note storyboarding sight-gags on the office walls of prestige TV writer Flip McVicker (Rami Malek) rival the Oscar nomination brainstorm from season 3. (A sampling of his ideas: “Montage depicting isolation”; “Montage depicting sexiness”; “Nudity?”) And self-reference underscores the entire conceit of episode 6, which uses the gimmick of changing the characters’ names (and animation) to comedic and then devastating effect. “Bobo the Angsty Zebra” is one of the show’s best episodes, as the characters are transformed in absurd ways when Diane’s therapist (Issa Rae) (who has to be a nod to the black lady therapist trope) and her mediator-maven wife (Wanda Sykes) attempt to talk about their work days while maintaining confidentiality. It is stupid and perfect, and the gut punch, a Diane line mirroring the episode’s main joke (“It’s a story I heard once, I just changed all the names”), is one of the hardest hits of the season.

But season 5 is also wall-to-wall meta commentary on producing a TV show about a “bad” guy and the moral implications of humanizing problematic characters, including but not limited to how entertainment and the entertainment industry, like BoJack, normalizes abuse and abusers. (The contained episode 4 treatment, specifically the Forgivies, a lifetime achievement award for being forgiven for bad behavior, and the jokes about celebrating bare-minimum — “how about we don’t choke women” — feminism is much more effective than the show’s big-picture efforts to reconcile the themes of Me Too with its interest in redemption and second chances.) 

The likability of anti-heroes is something that becomes an overwhelming preoccupation for Diane, as she is brought on to Philbert to make it less sexist (or rather, protect them from accusations of sexism) while BoJack spirals out over his guilt and inability to separate his character’s vices and behavior from his own. (The line between BoJack and Philbert is frequently and effectively blurred, but most importantly it is responsible for one of the best call-backs when Flip tells Mr. Peanutbutter one of the Philbert set designers toured David Boreanaz’ house for inspiration modeling what very clearly is BoJack’s home.)

It culminates in Diane’s episode 10 confrontations, at the Philbert premiere, first with Flip and later with BoJack, starting with telling the showrunner, “I made [Philbert] more vulnerable and that made him more likable and that made for a better TV show but if Philbert is just a way to make dumb assholes rationalize their own awful behavior, well, I’m sorry, we can’t put this out there.”

In season 5, particularly the last three episodes, the omnipresence of this meta commentary has diminishing returns. Certain jokes are funny, some lines are poignant, but for the most part, it becomes tedious. The story itself, the new techniques BoJack explores to tell its story and the new layers of existential questions it wants to add to its growing list of preoccupations, is far more interesting than gotcha-ing the audience for watching another show about a despicable male lead. It’s neither particularly self-examining nor self-eviscerating, though it’s already been called both. It’s simply self-aware, which isn’t quite enough for the ambition its persistence suggests.

Each time a new season of BoJack Horseman comes out, every review feels the need to cite the high bar set by previous seasons and, often, how the latest season meets or surpasses those expectations. Season 5 doesn’t quite. The highs are very high — the run from episode 5 through 8 includes four episodes that encapsulate everything that’s great about this show with a Princess Carolyn flashback, the eulogy episode, Bobo the Angsty Zebra, and a Mr. Peanutbutter-focused Halloween party episode that is another perfect combo of sight-gags and cutting character evaluations. Still, the season-long arc, tracing BoJack’s guilt, paranoia and pill addiction and the attempt to weave that arc into commentary about forgiveness in the context of the Me Too movement doesn’t quite work, no matter how many winks about TV they include. But even for its shortcomings, the show has a meta joke from Flip: “If you don’t like it that just means I’m a genius who wasn’t understood in my time.”